A lot of things happened in 1990 that shouldn’t have–ranging from Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to the failures of the Hubble telescope to Binney & Smith’s decision to retire four highly regarded Crayola colors, including raw umber. It has been a year of the gauche, the goofy, and the gross–in the Chicago area as much as anywhere else. The predictable assortment of senseless crimes, tragic accidents, natural catastrophes, and stupid decisions could shake one’s confidence any year, but in 1990 the bizarre often had a special bite. In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a month-by-month sampler of local doings that should not and need not have happened.


Following a nationwide search, the Chicago Board of Ethics selects as its new director Gary O’Neill, an attorney who has a notorious and well-publicized record of ethical and other problems in his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When the public complains about hiring a fox to guard the henhouse, O’Neill is quickly disinvited and is last heard from when arrested for driving 102 mph on a Missouri highway.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin closes down 40 churches and schools–including Quigley South, the largest high school seminary in the country–triggering a series of demonstrations and losing a substantial number of black teens who had been studying to become priests in the Chicago archdiocese.


Without warning, the newly installed local school council at Morgan Park High School terminates principal Walter Pildtich, despite improved reading and math scores under his administration and a massive show of support for him by parents and students. The council’s explanation: “You can’t do the job unless you’re Spanish.” Before the year ends some 25 other principals get a council boot, many for similar reasons.

Six inmates at the maximum-security correctional center in Joliet simply walk off the premises, and prison officials are apoplectic. Five inmates are soon recaptured. The sixth later turns himself in after deciding that life on the outside isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.


Phillip “Buddy Bear” De Geratto posts a notice on his west-side grocery that states, “This store is being remodeled. No Arabs will be involved.” As racial insults are hurled back and forth for several weeks, Buddy Bear has one staunch ally in City Hall: his own alderman, Bill Henry, who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (A couple of months later, De Geratto, 48, dies under mysterious circumstances the night before he is to begin serving a federal prison sentence for selling stolen meats and poultry.)

Though heralded as a heady, refreshing alternative to other Chicago magazines, Chicago Times ceases publishing after less than three years. Given the departure of its chief funder and the failure to find new investors, the ambitious venture is doomed.


Chicago’s Moody Church decides the biblical admonition “Suffer the little children to come unto me” does not apply universally. A five-year-old child with the AIDS virus is banned from the church’s Sunday school classes, triggering ungodly threats and forcing the elders to reinterpret the scriptures.

In an effort to dramatize the degrading nature of racist epithets, Loyola University professor Al Gini refers to a black student as “nigger” during a class session. The instructional value goes awry, however, when the student, backed by civil rights activists, mounts a campaign to put Gini in a bottle and wrest other concessions from the school administration.


Having lost his primary bid for Cook County board president, Judge R. Eugene Pincham goes on a rampage, denouncing as racists Paul Simon, Richard Phelan, Neil Hartigan, and practically every other white candidate. The voters respond to his race-based call to arms largely by staying home on election day.

The U.S. Court of Appeals upholds the constitutionality of the Illinois death penalty, paving the way for the execution of Charles Walker in September–the first Illinois execution in 24 years Illinois joins Florida, Texas, and other states that have been killing people legally since the mid-1970s.


Deeply concerned that flag burning might break out at any moment in their rural community, the Romeoville village board president and trustees unanimously approve a resolution setting a maximum fine of $1 for anyone convicted of “beating up” a person who desecrates an American flag. The village receives unprecedented national media attention.

Marian Wlodarski, a Chicago grandmother long active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is killed when an out-of-control vehicle jumps the curb, crashes through the front wall of her home, and strikes her in her living room. The driver of the car is found to be drunk.


A fire at Commonwealth Edison’s Crawford Avenue plant leaves 40,000 people on the south and west sides without electricity on a particularly warm Sunday. Murmurs of citizen disenchantment crescendo as weekend blackouts become almost regular events in Chicago’s poorer neighborhoods. Undeterred, Mayor Richard Daley later grants Edison a one-year extension on its franchise agreement with the city.

Oak Lawn village trustee Joseph Vogrich delivers an impassioned speech declaring that racial minorities do not belong in his village. Infuriated Chicago City Council members threaten to cut off Oak Lawn’s water supply in retaliation. Cooler heads attempt to muzzle Vogrich.


The City of Chicago loses a $477,581 bonus in federal job-training funds that it would have been awarded if it had spent the money it had already received for job programs by the deadline. Officials explain they were so busy helping the unemployed learn on-the-job efficiency that they didn’t notice the approaching deadline.

The Illinois Commerce Commission names Michael Hasten chairman of its task force to study possible changes in the laws regulating phone service, even though commission members are aware that Hasten is a registered lobbyist for Illinois Bell. One commission member hastens to explain that the new chairman would never allow his lobbying duties to interfere with his concerns for the consumer.


White Sox general manager Larry Himes, the man credited with putting together the team with the third-best record in the major leagues, is fired by autocratic Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Fans fear the team’s return to abysmal depths, a new ballpark notwithstanding.

The Checker and Yellow cab companies impose a stiff rate increase on all their drivers, virtually wiping out the gains cabbies had just won through their first pay raise in nine years and virtually guaranteeing that taxi drivers will be in an even worse mood than usual.


Chefs at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago use raw eggs in the sauce for the bread pudding served at a banquet for 1,500 True Value employees. The resulting salmonella outbreak sends 55 people to local hospitals and casts an ominous cloud over egg dishes in general and bread pudding in particular.

The City of Chicago decides that some $68,000 in unpaid traffic tickets acquired by employees in six city departments shall be paid out of taxpayer funds, not by the offending employees. The former system of simply discarding the tickets (with court approval) appeared unethical, says one city official.


Stating that she is “absolutely confident” of victory, Jane Byrne throws her hat in the ring for the 1991 mayoral race. Byrne still owes $91,000 in unpaid debts from her 1983 primary campaign.

One day after December 4 is approved as “Fred Hampton Day” by a 49-0 City Council vote, 17 white aldermen change their votes, revealing more about how carefully they scrutinize legislation than about their sensitivity to racial matters. Some apparently confused Black Panther Fred Hampton, shot in the head 21 years ago during a police raid, with Chicago Bear Dan Hampton, crippled in the knees over many years during Sunday-afternoon skirmishes.


The Chicago Transit Authority cancels 60 round trips per day on three of its busiest el lines, beginning just one week before Christmas. This sends State Street and Michigan Avenue merchants, who are in the middle of what appears to be a lighter-than-usual shopping season, into depression.

Less than a month after his election, new county board president Richard Phelan attempts to dump John Stroger as chairman of the county finance committee. Phelan fails to get the votes, managing in one fell swoop to (a) cast severe doubt on his leadership ability, (b) alienate a substantial segment of the black community, and (c) pave the way for a new year of political antagonism, suspicion, and squabbling.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.